The on-campus gym at Clark University is affectionately known as The Den. This weekend, however, the Clark Cougars felt right at home in a "Cage." Clark claimed the NEWMAC title on Sunday with a 74-68 win over No. 3 seed WPI at MIT and will be heading to the NCAA Division-III Tournament with the NEWMAC's automatic bid.
Once again, senior leadership proved invaluable for the Cougars, who were led by Mark Alexander's 21 points and Jack Minister's 18.
The well-supported Cougars built a 33-27 halftime lead. But the WPI faithful traveled well too, and they were just as vocal as the Engineers clawed and fought their way and stayed close in the first half. Jeffrey Robinson had nine points to lead the way for WPI at the break. WPI struggled at the charity stripe, however, missing five from the line in the first half.
The second half was a championship-level, back-and-forth half of basketball. Both teams would hold the lead and the up-and-down action would go on throughout most of the stanza. However, as the tension grew, Clark's seniors responded and reacted. In fact, Clark head coach Paul Phillips' crew made just eight turnovers in the entire game, and none in the second half.
As the game wound under two minutes, the crowd was every bit as loud as you would find in a big arena and the tension was thick. WPI was down by three and playing intense defense. The shot clock was winding down when Clark's Mitch Renshaw calmly knocked down a 3-pointer to give Clark a six-point edge that turned out to be the final difference. WPI was forced to foul and stop the clock, but it was to no avail. Clark's fans were geared up for an explosive celebration, so much so that security had to guard the bleachers for fear the fans storming the court.
As the final seconds ticked off the clock, the ball was launched high in the air and the Cougar players rushed to the edge of the bleachers toward their fans. Players hugged fellow students as Clark's five seniors gladly accepted the conference trophy, each one raising it high into the air for all to see.
Clark will find out its NCAA dance partner Monday morning, while WPI joins MIT on the sideline waiting to see if its name will be called. A 20-7 record may be enough to garner an at-large bid for WPI, but an ECAC bid is also possible as inviting three teams from the NEWMAC may be too many for the committee to allow.
In the NEWMAC women's championship game, Babson earned its second straight title with a win over WPI. Kathleen King led the way with 17 points and 15 rebounds. Babson concludes a perfect season in NEWMAC play and improves to 25-3 overall.